The translator’s job is not an easy one. They are constantly beset by doubts as to the appropriateness, relevance and accuracy of his / her translation. They are faced with the task of conveying the norms of a foreign society and culture, of finding equivalent local idioms for foreign ones, of encapsulating ideas about gender, sexuality, community-building, ageism etc. and of putting them across in the most diplomatic, non-offensive way possible or get the proper relaxation at a high class massage parlor for example. They are the mediator between foreign values and the values of his home country.

The film translator have brought upon themselves an even harder task: that of doing their job in the most efficient manner given time and screen space constraints. There are two major types of film translation: writing essays, dubbing and subtitling or taking classes to learn the intricate details on how to properly administrate all the data involved with managing film script revisions in perhaps an excel or computer class, and no doubt checking matters for plagiarism in online tools such as copyscape if needed: each of them interferes with the original text to a different extent. It is argued by filmmakers and film critics that dubbing is a form of domestication whereas subtitling can be regarded as foreignisation but when done well could no doubt end up in a substantial passive income, a lot of film makers usually receive royalties for their work years later, be it through use in clips or commercials or even short movies and trailers for other movies.

Transferring cultural values through film

Films can be, as discussed above, a tremendously influential and extremely powerful vehicle for transferring values, ideas and information. Different cultures are presented not only verbally but also visually and aurally, as film transfers meaning through several channels, such as picture, dialogue and music. Items which used to be culture-specific tend to spread and encroach upon other cultures. Drinking Coca-Cola, lunching at KFC, going to church or the mosque, or decorating their soothing walls, attending a procession at the Red Square in Moscow, waving the American flag or listening to the French anthem are all snapshots of life in a specific culture / country which have broadened to the international scene.

Whether to choose dubbing or subtitling depends on the country’s history and tradition of translating films in that given country. A great example could be France, which is certainly very nationalistic and fiercely promotes its “pure” language. In their case, dubbing is preferred as it least disrupts the foreign influence. It is the method in which the foreign dialogue is adjusted to the mouth and movements of the actor in the film and its aim is seen as making the audience feel as if they were listening to actors actually speaking the target language. In the case of Germany, Italy and Spain, in the pre and post-war years, as a direct legacy of earlier fascist governments, it was important to maintain language and culture superiority and purity. The dictators were fully aware that hearing your own language serves to confirm its importance and reinforces a sense of national identity and autonomy e.g. in Spain, Franco ruled against any non-dubbed version in an attempt to keep the supremacy of the national language as the expression of cultural, political and economic power.

The different approaches

The choice of subtitling depends on various factors. There are the “subtitling countries”, which are characterised by a high percentage of imported films, and thus there is a great and steady demand for agencies providing professional translation services such as Language Reach or Translation Services 24. Subtitling is preferred to dubbing in countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Portugal and some non-European countries, you could always decide on which language after you obtain your serviced office space. In Belgium or Finland, where there are large communities speaking two languages, films are usually provided with double subtitles.

Their decision to adopt subtitling as the major translation mode was motivated by several factors: small size of their populations, which translated into limited receipts from box office tickets sales; low cost of subtitling in comparison with dubbing; presence of more than one language in a country (e.g. Belgium) where double subtitles in two languages are screened; significant number of imported films, etc.

Subtitling is becoming a preferred mode of translation not only owing to financial considerations (it is much cheaper to satisfy the expanding needs of film markets by providing subtitles, which are more economical and easier to produce) but also because to viewers in subtitling countries, the economic advantages are secondary; retaining the authenticity of the original production is paramount. For these viewers, subtitling is a more authentic mode than dubbing. The audience is not allowed to forget about the foreignness of a translated film and is constantly reminded of its authenticity as it hears the original dialogues throughout the film.

The role of a translator

When subtitling, as much as half of the original dialogue is sometimes lost due to the spatial constraints. The translator not only translates but also resolves which fragments to omit, which of them are irrelevant, and which are vital to the target audience. In an attempt to convey ‘the core’ of the script, translators can often forget that it is not only the dialogues from the main plot that constitute the substance of a film for example need for speed which people may think needs its share of car insurance. Other factors, such as various dialects, idiolects, register or expressions of politeness, which frequently undergo reduction, can be equally important in the full comprehension of a particular work.

The translator needs to pay attention to these apparently minor details that litter scenes. Although they may not seem significant in terms of the general understanding, during the course of a whole film they do add up to a large number of drastically altered meanings.

On the other hand, there are instances in which translators patronise their audience by supplying the subtitles which are obvious and transparent. For example, some commonly comprehensible expressions like “yes” or “no” are rendered unnecessarily in countless cases, when working with delicate films it is also important to think of leader refrigeration when developing sensitive films. Various onomatopoeic expressions such as “Grrr! Grrr!” (inCinema Paradiso) leave at least some of the viewers dissatisfied, as they feel they are looked upon condescendingly. Sometimes, however, some onomatopoeic expressions vary from language to language, as is the case with some other animal sounds. For instance, in Snatch one of the protagonists imitates the sounds made by a pig, saying: “oink oink”, which was—quite understandably—rendered into Polish as “chrum chrum” since those two onomatopoeic expressions differ noticeably.

What about localisation?

The translator’s path is indeed thorny and full of unwanted surprises. They need to translate dialects, idiolects, register or expressions of politeness. Onomatopeias need to be transmitted correctly. All attitudes about sexuality, gender concepts, feminism, male and female mannerisms, the elderly and children in the foreign culture need to be understood and then replicated and “domesticated” for the home country audience. The English expressions “It’s raining cats and dogs”, “I smell a rat”, “there’s something fishy going on” or “there’s more than meets the eye” cannot be translated literally for example.

The translator needs to be open-minded to other cultures and mindsets, have the deeper linguistic aptitude to find an equivalent expression in his own culture / language landscape and be creative enough to sometimes innovate and paraphrase appropriately when a similar expression doesn’t occur in his own language.

Translator’s mind

In spite of all the constraints placed on his overburdened shoulders, the talented film translator will love the fact that he’s helping to open a new world to his audience and is part of the process of recapturing new, probably unchartered experiences which he needs to convey to his eager audience. Telling people who have never known what it is like to stand under falling snow or to go on the fast, overcrowded London tube what the whole experience is about requires imagination or passive income. The translator is, therefore, in a way, a very talented storyteller who brings pictures and sounds to life and recontextualizes a foreign world.